The perfect trip: China
Jainkou: Best for the Great Wall
It is a few hours past midnight and the forest around Jiankou is pitch-dark, but Zhao Fuqing shows no sign of losing his way. He walks with a steady stride, occasionally stopping to hack away foliage with a battered axe that he keeps tucked into his belt. Around him, the forest echoes with sounds: buzzing insects, croaking bullfrogs and birds twittering among the treetops.
Abruptly, he stops and points through a gap in the forest canopy, where the first rays of dawn are breaking. High above, a ribbon of watchtowers and battlements snakes out across the rippled hills, its contours traced out against a fuchsia sky.
Stretching for around 5,500 miles along China’s wild frontiers, the Great Wall is a potent symbol of the colossal power and iron will once wielded by the Chinese empire. This vast manmade barrier might not be visible from space, as is often claimed, but it is truly one of the great wonders of the ancient world.
In fact, there isn’t really one Great Wall at all, but many. It consists of numerous sections, built and modified by successive military commanders over the course of more than 2,000 years. Some parts are little more than pounded earth, mud and timber. Others, such as the Jiankou section, bristle with ramparts, forts and guard towers, often given elaborate names such as The Eagle Flies Facing Upward, Heaven’s Ladder or the Nine-Eye Tower.
Built in the mid-14th century, during the Ming Dynasty, much of the Jiankou wall is now in a perilous state. Some areas are crumbling to dust, eroded by centuries of wind, rain and winter snows. Though heavily overgrown and riven with cracks, most of the watchtowers and battlements are still standing – although there’s no telling how long they’ll last.
‘I hope our wall will be here forever,’ muses Zhao Fuqing, who has been exploring this part of the wall since he was a boy and now works here as a walking guide. ‘But you never know what Mother Nature will bring.’ As if to illustrate his point, a rockslide suddenly thunders down the slopes, sending clouds of dust and rubble tumbling down the valley walls. ‘You see?’ Mr Zhao chuckles.
Where to stay
In the village of Xizhazi, the country inn run by Mr Zhao is basic, but welcomes are warm. Although the rooms are spartan, they have hot showers and overlook a trout-filled well. Generous home-cooked meals are served on request, and Mr Zhao plans to add more sophisticated rooms soon (00 86 10 6161 1762; rooms from £15, mains from £1).
Shanghai: Best for architecture
If anywhere symbolises China’s superpower future, it is Shanghai. Wired by fibre-optics, intersected by neon-lit freeways and bathed in a permanent sodium glow, it is the archetypal modern metropolis: faster, richer, brasher and busier than any other city in China. Twenty years ago, the city would barely have scraped into the top 50 in the world skyscraper league, but it is now at number four – surpassed only by Hong Kong, New York and Tokyo – and rising fast.
On the east bank of the River Huangpu, in the high-rise district of Pudong, the pace of change in Shanghai really shifts into focus. In 1990, this was still farm land, carpeted with rice paddies, cornfields, warehouses and boat stores. Two decades later, it is the city’s priciest patch of real estate, home to the main financial district, the stock exchange and Shanghai’s tallest cluster of skyscrapers, including the gaudy Oriental Pearl Tower, the Gothamesque Jinmao Tower, the soaring Shanghai World Financial Centre and the Shanghai Tower, which will be the world’s second-highest building, at 632m, when it is due to be completed in 2014.